By Joel Silverberg
The Knoxville Ice Bears are currently sitting in fifth place in the SPHL standings with 22-24 games to play for every team in the league. In December Knoxville was in seventh. Two spots may not seem like a major improvement, but this team is playing at a significantly higher tier than it was seven weeks ago.
Knoxville made the jump overnight. Literally.
On December 15 the Ice Bears were embarrassed at home by Peoria 7-1. It was Knoxville’s fourth straight loss and the third straight game the Ice Bears surrendered six or more goals.
Fast forward a day. Knoxville is hosting Peoria again on a Saturday night. Coming in on a four game skid and reeling. The Rivermen scored midway through the opening period and added a second goal with nine seconds left and went into the first intermission with a 2-0 lead. Peoria looked well on its way to skating out of Knoxville with two wins on the weekend.
The Ice Bears responded quickly, scoring five seconds into the second period and tying the game just before the second intermission. Knoxville added two goals in the third to complete the rally for a 4-2 win. The season has looked drastically different since.
Knoxville is 12-3-1 since that loss to Peoria in mid-December. While the Ice Bears still sit at fifth in the standings, the gap behind the top four teams in the league is closing. Knoxville is three points behind Evansville for fourth place and have two games in hand over the Thunderbolts.
With Knoxville’s current pace, the Ice Bears are trending towards a top four finish to claim home-ice advantage in the first round of the postseason. Placing in the top three would grant Knoxville the ability to choose its first round opponent.
How did Knoxville get here? Where do the Ice Bears attribute their run back into the upper tier of the SPHL? Here are three areas where credit is due.
1. The defense is tighter
It’s no secret that this is an offensive-minded team, but the improvement on the Ice Bears’ blue line deserves major props for keeping Knoxville in tight, low scoring games. Opposing teams are having more difficulty gaining the zone and the Ice Bears’ back checking makes this defense look like an entirely different team. The penalty kill, which at one point was ranked in the bottom half of the league, is now the top unit in the SPHL and has given up one power play goal in Knoxville’s last seven games. In the Ice Bears’ 1-0 shutout win over Mississippi on Friday the RiverKings were held to just 17 shots.
2. The backup goaltender situation has been resolved
Speaking of shutout wins, Troy Davenport notched his first shutout of the season in that victory on Friday. It was a strong showing from Davenport, who was playing in his first game in 20 days. He followed it up with a 38-save performance in another win on Saturday. Davenport has been a nice reliever for Zoltan Hetenyi, who had started 19 of Knoxville’s first 21 games this year. The Ice Bears didn’t have a frequent backup solution for Hetenyi until Davenport was signed on December 27.
In a league where games are often jammed between Thursday and Sunday, finding a backup goalie is crucial for a number of reasons. First, it helps a team’s playoff seeding being able to pick up wins with a second netminder. Second, it spaces out starts for ironman goalies who are used to a heavy workload. Only two goalies in the league have played in more games this year than Hetenyi. Third, successful teams with solid goaltending are in danger of being in a pinch if their starting goalie is injured or called up to the ECHL, which happened last week when Hetenyi was loaned to Greenville. Davenport answered the bell by helping Knoxville to two wins in as many nights.
3. Berkley Scott is doing Berkley Scott things
Knoxville’s biggest goal scoring threat is tied for the league lead with 18 goals, which is pretty impressive considering it took Scott eight games to get his first goal of the year and another six games to get his second. He’s also tied for third in the SPHL with 38 points.
During Knoxville’s aforementioned run he’s scored 15 goals in those 16 games. Earlier this month he was named the league’s Player of the Week for scoring six goals and adding an assist in a three game span, including a four-goal night on January 20 against Roanoke. The 7th year veteran has 13 points in his last six games and has goals in five of those. If Scott continues to produce, Knoxville can expect to compete with the rest of the league.